Civitavecchia, Italy — STANDING at the rail during a voyage, I've sometimes wished I could be transported to a passing excursion boat for a moment so that I could revel in the beautiful sight of my ship underway.
Star Clippers, operator of three handsome tall ships for cruise passengers, understands this desire. In July, cruising in the Mediterranean with eight family members aboard the Royal Clipper, passengers were invited to clamber down into the ship's two tenders with our cameras.
While these boats circled, camcorders whirred and shutters clicked as the Royal Clipper's deck crew began to hoist the sails -- first the four jibs and 11 staysails, then, mast by mast, 26 squaresails. Finally, glowing in the warm light of a late Mediterranean afternoon, just off the picturesque island of Panarea, the picture was complete.
With these 42 Dacron sails billowing in the light breeze, the five-masted, 439-foot-long ship was majestic indeed. The Royal Clipper, which its owner calls the largest full-rigged tall ship in the world, was completed in 2000 and inspired by the Preussen, flagship of Germany's Flying P Line, built nearly a century earlier, in 1902.
My wife, Laurel, and I had sailed in the Caribbean a decade ago aboard the smaller Star Clipper, one of the line's first ships. For her birthday last year, she chose to sail on a Clipper again, this time on a round-trip departing Civitavecchia, Rome's port. Birthday celebrants included our daughters Emily and Jenn and son-in-law John, along with Laurel's aunt, uncle and cousin: Joan, Paul and Nancy.
At 10 p.m., the ship slipped its lines and eased toward the sea, accompanied by soaring recorded music from the movie "1492." Dominique Jacobs, the cruise director, recruited passengers to help raise the sails -- an activity more ritualistic than necessary since the deck crew of 16 (from among a total staff of 104, of 28 nationalities) easily could have handled the job on its own, thanks to the ship's electric winches and self-furling mainsails.
After a day at sea, we arrived at a dazzlingly white port town, all stucco and stone, on the island of Favignana, at the far western end of Sicily. Favignana's claim to fame is \o7tonno\f7, or tuna, and until recently it was the site of the \o7mattanza\f7, an annual ritualistic tuna kill of huge proportions that had survived since the Middle Ages.
We strolled through the port's two picturesque piazzas, paved in broad stones worn smooth. The town was sunbaked and deserted during the siesta hours of our visit, with awnings out and shutters closed. We passed shops vending all manner of \o7tonno\f7: different cuts, packed in olive oil or brine, dried, ground, smoked.
Helping Mother Nature
BACK aboard the Royal Clipper, we listened to the anchor chain clank as we prepared to set sail for Malta. Crew members winched the jibs taut, then the staysails behind the bridge, and eventually the squaresails. Sitting on the after-deck in the late afternoon sun, exquisitely content with book in hand, I could feel the rumble through the deck and see the churn and swirl of wake that meant the engines were assisting the sails. We'd been spoiled on our Star Clipper cruises out of Barbados, when we did a significant amount of pure sailing -- without engines.
"The Caribbean is much better for sailing," cruise director Jacobs told me later when I mentioned this to her. "Particularly on this side of Italy, there's very little wind."
Our time aboard was filled with pleasures nonetheless, and one of them was simply the feel of being aboard a sailing vessel of the Royal Clipper's imposing presence. We enjoyed observing, sometimes even participating in, shipboard rituals. Though the open-air bridge was off limits during maneuvering, passengers could watch -- and listen.
Approaching Siracusa -- on the south shore of Sicily, with Mt. Etna dimly visible behind the city through the haze of summer heat -- the call and response of captain and quartermaster were the routine, everyday drama of work at sea.
"Five astarboard," said the captain, asking for a small course correction.
"Five astarboard, sir."
"Amidships," said the captain.
"Steady as she goes."
With deliberate care the ship passed the battlements that once protected the harbor, then nuzzled up against the pier.
"Did you climb the mast?" Jacobs asked one afternoon at sea.
"No, I sent my proxy," I said, nodding at daughter Jenn, who, along with John, had gone aloft. At set times, passengers were encouraged to climb to the lower crow's nest on a mainmast -- tethered and closely supervised.
"Me neither," she said with a sheepish smile. It surprised me, given her ability to multitask. She speaks seven languages: her native Flemish, Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and Greek. For now, she's happy at sea, although she was educated as a graphic artist. "It's a lifestyle more than a job, really," she said, "or even an addiction."